On March 11, the Dallas Stars were set to begin a six-game road trip that began with the Pittsburgh Penguins that night. The teams were tied for the ninth-best record in the NHL at 82 points, which put Dallas at only fourth in the Central Division. They were only three points back on the Minnesota Wild however, with a game in hand, and they were three points ahead of the Los Angeles Kings, who sat in ninth place with no games in hand.
Fast forward two weeks (seven games) later. The Stars now have 84 points, just two more than they did before, and with only seven games remaining in the regular season. They have dropped to 18th in the league, and 10th in the conference. They are four points back on the Colorado Avalanche, who currently sit at eighth and have a game in hand on the Stars. Even if the Stars win out, the team needs help if they want to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Given the sudden seven-game losing streak, it’s only natural to want to figure out just what went wrong. And at first glance, the answer seems obvious: injuries. Ben Bishop was injured several games prior to the losing streak in a game against the Ottawa Senators, and was re-injured against the Winnipeg Jets. Marc Methot left the Montreal Canadiens game early due to a hand laceration and missed four games as a result. It was recently announced that Jason Spezza would be sidelined for two weeks, and could possibly be done for the season.
On top of that, players like Brett Ritchie, Esa Lindell, and Antoine Roussel have all missed a game or two recently due to injury or illness. Many fans are convinced that Jamie Benn has been playing through some sort of injury this season since he hasn’t gone “beast mode” yet. And would you be surprised if I told you that the Stars haven’t won a game since Martin Hanzal (who had his season-ending back surgery on Friday) was in the lineup?
So it’s easy to look at the Stars’ struggles and write them off due to injuries. But if you take a closer look at their recent play, even before the losing streak, you’ll realize that the Stars’ problems extend far beyond simple injuries.
For starters, Dallas has scored more than two goals only twice in the past 10 games, and both times they still managed to lose the game. Unsurprisingly, the team went 1-6-3 during that stretch. Out of those 21 goals scored, eight of them came on the power play (38.1%), five came from Tyler Seguin (23.8%), and 13 came from either Seguin, Benn, or Alexander Radulov (61.9%).
Taking away the 6-5 loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs (which was an abnormality as far as scoring for the Stars goes), the Stars have gotten eight out of 16 goals (50%) on the power play, four out of 16 (25%) from Seguin, and 11 out of 16 (68.75%) from the top forward trio. In other words, the Stars have been relying far too much on great power play success (at eight out of 31 or 25.8%, which is second when compared to other teams’ season percentage) and their top forwards in order to score, and have failed to win as a result.
Those are issues that the injured players wouldn’t have fixed. If you look at the players who have been out for an extended period of time during that stretch (i.e. more than two games), you wouldn’t find any that provide an offensive punch. Methot has a single assist in 29 games played this season. Hanzal had 10 points in 38 games. And as for Ben Bishop - well, if your team’s offense needs your goaltender to give it a boost, you have problems beyond fixing.
What those players do provide, however, is quality defense. Both Methot and Hanzal are great on the penalty kill, and Bishop can be one of the league’s top goaltenders when healthy. So their absence certainly has hurt. The Stars have surrendered 33 goals over the last 10 games, and have held their opponents to two goals or less only twice (and not at all during the losing streak). Not to mention the Stars have had trouble holding leads recently:
Unreal. This is the third time in the last five games the Stars led at second intermission and lost. Tonight was the first in regulation.— Josh Bogorad (@JoshBogorad) March 24, 2018
They were 29-1-1 this season prior to this stretch.
This was the fourth time in the last five games that the Stars allowed a goal in the final five minutes of regulation when they were leading by one or the game was tied.— Josh Bogorad (@JoshBogorad) March 24, 2018
at TOR - 15.3
at OTT - 3:10
at WSH - 4:59
vs BOS - 11.1
That is a criminally cruel string of defeats.
Here’s where that argument breaks down: Methot and Hanzal have both been injured almost the entire year, yet the Stars were able to climb as high as third in the Central despite their absence. They are last and second to last respectively in CF% on the team according to hockey-reference.com and second and third to last in FF%, just ahead of Devin Shore. If traditional stats are more your thing, Hanzal is second to last on the team in +/- with -14 ahead of Shore (Methot is a decent +3). Simply put, the Stars don’t rely on Hanzal and Methot as much as you’d think.
As for the setback of losing Bishop, that’s a bit harder to dispute. Since his first injury against Ottawa, Kari Lehtonen has appeared in nine games and allowed 26 goals on 254 shots, which produces an .897% save percentage and a 2.89 GAA. But this also includes two games with only a single goal against and another with only two goals against, only one of which the Stars won (the Anaheim game, the Stars’ last win).
In addition, Lehtonen’s season totals aren’t that much worse than Bishop’s. The Stars’ starter has had a .916% save percentage and 2.49 GAA, compared to Lehtonen’s .912% and 2.54 GAA. Lehtonen’s stats are even better than some (potential) playoff goalies, such as Corey Schneider, Matt Murray, Braden Holtby, Brian Elliott, and Jake Allen. Before Bishop’s first injury, Lehtonen had an even better .918% save percentage and only 1.95 GAA.
In other words, Lehtonen hasn’t been that much of a downgrade from Bishop. He might seem like an easy scapegoat given his poor stats recently, but that can be attributed more to the team’s poor play as a whole than just Lehtonen’s. In fact, Lehtonen has played well enough to win for the Stars several times during the last 10 games, but the skaters just didn’t find ways to score and wasted his good games.
Finally, the fact that the Stars have suffered several injuries lately doesn’t excuse a rapid decline in quality of play and a staggering seven-game losing streak. The regular season is almost over and nearly every team has at least one key contributor who is injured. Whenever a team’s eliminated from the playoffs, we always here about how several players have been playing injured for weeks prior.
In the words of the Stars’ own Tyler Seguin:
“It’s that time of year,” Seguin said. “There’s injuries. We have guys banged up. So does every other team. I don’t think that’s an excuse. I don’t think being tired is an excuse. Right now, that’s more of a mindset than anything. It’s playoff hockey right now for us. It has been for a little while.”
These are just a few areas to think over surrounding the recent losing streak and the lack of scoring. Another thought is that GM Jim Nill could have likely prevented the recent scoring issues by buying at the trade deadline, especially given how cheap players like Evander Kane or Michael Grabner came. Some of the lineup decisions, such as not giving more opportunities for players like Jason Dickinson or Gemel Smith, might have also had an impact on recent play. In addition to this, the defensive pairings have only changed if there has been an injury, which leads fans to wonder if the team has taken a defense-first approach instead of offense when it comes to compensating for the recent injuries.
But this isn’t supposed to be a list of every reason the Stars’ season has gone off the rails. This is simply a preemptive argument against the one that Dallas will miss the playoffs because certain players were injured at the wrong time.
Sure, those injuries have played their part in the recent collapse. And when Nill and Hitchcock are giving their season-end press conferences on April 1 (barring some sort of April Fool’s miracle), it may most likely be the main answer they’ll give when asked, “What went wrong?”
But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right one.